Can Perception Become Reality?

There’s a lot of discussion these days about how the media influences people – whether the stories are real or fake. I ran across an interesting example that predates our current political mess by decades: Mad Gasser of Mattoon in 1944

ANESTHETIC PROWLER ON LOOSE
Mrs. Kearney and Daughter First Victims
Both Recover; Robber Fails to Get Into Home

Even for a newspaper, that’s a lot of assumptions: first, that these were only the “first” victims; second, that the prowler was using some sort of anesthetic; and third, that he was a robber. But it was enough. Within days, several more people called police saying that they too had been attacked by the prowler they read about in the newspaper. Their stories were published in the paper on September 5, owing to no publications on Sunday and the Labor Day holiday.

And that’s when the real melee began.

MAD ANESTHETIST STRIKES AGAIN

STATE HUNTS GAS MADMAN

[Then] the character of the newspaper reports changed dramatically. The headlines became: THE MANHUNT FOR MR. NOBODY

And as soon as that became the tone, suddenly there were zero more police reports. skeptoid.com

No residue of gas or lasting symptoms were observed, no gas is known to cause all the symptoms reported, and no prowler was ever caught – though there is an anecdotal suggestion that the initial attack could have been real.

In 1945 the Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology published one research article on the Mad Gasser. Graphs of newspaper space in square inches compared to the number of reports showed a very apparent effect. If the morning newspapers dedicated more space to the Gasser, more reports came in that day. And during that initial 2-day Labor Day publishing break, no gassing was reported.

It’s depressing to think people can be manipulated so easily.

The Mad Gasser of Mattoon became one of the most famous case studies in mass hysteria. skeptoid.com

This was a small event in a small town during wartime, and it was over in a couple weeks when the local newspaper moved on. Consider Americans today, reading and viewing stories aimed at an agenda, whether pushed for ideological or financial reasons. Over and over, day after day. Maybe a single story gets repeated a dozen times – it feels as if it happened a dozen times.

As individuals zero in on fewer outlets, they get caught in the “echo chamber” of their own fears, hopes, and biases. Depending on which rabbit hole each of us chooses to fall down, we end up in “living” in different worlds.

No one can save us from ourselves – the answer must come from us.

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